The F-Type had already breathed new life into Jaguar and the GT in general. Its latest version is a joy to drive
here was a time, back in the Seventies and Eighties, when the classic, front-engined sports GT looked as dead as a door nail. Ferrari was only building mid-engined supercars, Maserati had the mid-engined Merak, Jaguar was developing its XJ220, and even Aston Martin had toyed with the idea of a supercar with its 1980 Bulldog concept.
The GT was being usurped by all those sharply creased cheese-wedges because mounting the engine in the middle of the car made for better weight distribution and handling. Engineering, in other words, had won the argument, but the loser was undoubtedly elegance and style. There’s a romance to the GT’s long bonnet, swept-back roofline and muscular rear haunches.
It’s Roger Moore in his flared trousers, driving a white Lotus Esprit, versus Sean Connery’s Aston DB5, the archetype of the cool, gentleman’s drive. It was Ferrari’s president, Luca di Montezemolo, who saved the GT. Born into an aristocratic Italian family, the boss of Ferrari between 1991 and 2014 was, in many ways, like an Italian James Bond (only without the guns).
Wealthy, good-looking and sophisticated, he decided that folding yourself into a three-foot-high, mid-engined supercar and lying on your back like you’re in a dentist’s chair was fine if you were a racing driver, but if you were crossing Europe for a board meeting, supercars were big on drama, short on dignity. To arrive in casual style, Montezemolo decided, a gentleman needed a GT. That, and traction control. Having the engine up front means less weight on the rear tyres, making front-engined, rear-drive GTs more prone to wheel-spin (and crashing).
What made Montezemolo’s Ferrari 550 Maranello possible in 1996 were the new electronics needed to curb the car’s massive power. The 550, Ferrari’s first front-engined V12 in over two decades, was also the first Ferrari road car to feature traction control.
Twenty-five years later, the front-engined sports GT has made a healthy comeback, featuring in the showrooms of Ferrari, Maserati, Mercedes and Aston Martin.
But if there’s one car that epitomises the old-fashioned romance of the GT, it’s the Jaguar F-Type.
After World War II, Jaguar was the British Ferrari. It’s good to remind yourself of that. The swoopingly curvaceous XK120 was the fastest car in the world when it was launched in 1948 (the ‘120’ referred to its top speed). Jaguar won Le Mans five times during the 1950s, and when the E-Type was launched in 1961, even Enzo Ferrari had to concede it was ‘the most beautiful car ever made’.
Jaguar built its reputation on front-engined gentleman’s GTs, the kind of cars you drove wearing Dents driving gloves and Persol sunglasses. Which is why it was such a tragedy that during the Eighties and Nineties the company lost its way, becoming known for its crusty saloon cars and outdated walnut dashboards. Launched in 2013, the F-Type was a bold relaunch of the brand: a relatively small, youthful and vigorous sports GT that would reoccupy the territory that Jaguar once owned.
But it wasn’t perfect. First, the original F-Type could be a riotous handful to drive. The V8 ‘R’ produced almost 550bhp, and even the traction control could barely keep it in check. In its quest to build a ‘challenging’ driver’s car, Jaguar released something that was edgy – and, in the wet, bordered on terrifying.
It was too vigorous, and instead of arriving at the board meeting with a laid-back insouciance you’d climb out of the car with sticky palms and eyes bulging like cue-balls. While the styling was beautifully proportioned, I always felt the nose – with its longitudinally stretched headlights – never matched the rear, where the tail-lights were slender horizontal bars.
Which is why I absolutely love the new 2020 Jaguar F-Type.
Visually, the facelift resolves everything that was wrong with the Mk1 – the new headlights are slim and sleek, echoing the rear lights, giving the car a much more cohesive look. Now your eye can focus on the car’s flanks, that long bonnet and the cabin, sitting back on the squat, powerful rear.
It’s everything a GT should be. Inside, the cabin is largely unchanged: it’s still a snug two-seater, with a low, floor-level driving position, but it now gets a digital driver display and modern connective technology like Apple CarPlay.
But the biggest change in the new 2020 F-Type is the way it drives. Under the bonnet, the V6 that represented the middle of the F-Type range has now been dropped. Instead, between the entry-level four-cylinder P300 and the 567bhp V8 ‘R’, is the brand-new P450, with a 444bhp 5.0-litre V8.
It hits the sweet spot in so many ways: starting at £69,990 in coupé form, it’s much cheaper than a Porsche 911, but it’s fast, it’s rear-wheel drive (though four-wheel drive is an option) and it sounds incredible. Press the ‘loud’ button on the centre console and the exhaust pops and crackles like an American Nascar warming up for the Daytona 500.
And while the original V8 F-Type would have you clinging to the steering wheel in fear, the new car’s chassis is benign and composed, soaking up the road where once it would feel skittish and raw. It feels secure at speed, even in the rain with standing water under the wheels.
It has a Germanic steadfastness, inspiring confidence, allowing you to extract more of the formidable performance. The new F-Type is modern to look at, easy to use but, in some ways, it is an old-fashioned car: fast, beautiful and so evocative of the Sixties in its emotional appeal. Have your Persol sunglasses at the ready.